The coronavirus pandemic, systemic racism, and police brutality all have to be erased to protect public health, particularly for the black community, said Dr. Patrice Harris, the outgoing president of the American Medical Association. 

Harris, speaking to Cheddar the day after her tenure ended, leaves the nation’s largest association of physicians at a time of remarkable upheaval for the medical community as the pandemic has created an all-hands-on-deck moment for the healthcare industry.  

She was the group’s first female African-American leader, and during her tenure she made a point of highlighting the racial disparities in healthcare ⁠— most notably by establishing the AMA’s first-ever Center for Health Equity last year ⁠— which proved prophetic given the disproportionate toll of COVID-19 on minority communities. 

The pandemic, has “amplified longstanding health inequities,” Harris said, which extend beyond the medical system to discrimination in areas like housing policies, schooling, and health facility access across the U.S.

“The structural racism is way broader than just the health system,” she said.

As its last act under Harris’ leadership, the AMA has launched Release the Pressure, a new collaboration with ESSENCE magazine aimed at encouraging black women to improve their heart health, starting with their blood pressure.

“For so long, women have put their health at the end of their to-do list,” Harris said. The backdrop of the pandemic presents an opportunity to highlight the risks of high blood pressure on overall health. The campaign aims to get 300,000 black women to take a pledge to lower their blood pressure ⁠— first by setting a BP goal and learning how to monitor it from home. 

Harris said it’s important when discussing issues of health and race that we “reverse the burden” by not blaming individuals for health problems that are rooted in issues like structural racism, implicit bias, and lack of access to care. “All of those are drivers of health,” she said.

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